Catalonia has gone up in flames

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13 years.

The 14th October 2019, following eight months of debates, all nine prisoners of the Catalan government were sentenced by the Spanish National Court for sedition, all to between 9 and 12 years imprisonment.

Judging the events of the 20th September and the illegal referendum of the 1st October 2017 (during which the court estimated 1.9 million euros were spent) as weighting enough to determine prison sentences longer than those for rapists or human trafficking in Spain (6-12 and 5-8 years respectively); the 14th of October will be remembered by Catalan citizens as the day they lost their right to democracy.

Oriol Junqueras, former vice-president of Catalonia, and the highest-ranking pro-independence leader on trial, was given the longest sentence (13 years) for sedition and misuse of public funds. These politicians had already been 2 years under preventive imprisonment.

The leaders of Junts pel Sí (a political party) had been democratically elected by majority vote in December 2016 and had explicitly written in their manifesto their intention to initiate an independence process. Fast forward two years, and the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona, is in a state of severe unrest. Five peaceful marches and numerous riots, in which at least 500,000 citizens took part, paralysed the centre of the city following the verdict.

These protests were encouraged by the current President of Catalonia, Quim Torra. Blocking the Barcelona airport, the entrance to the Sagrada Família, stopping traffic and burning containers might have upset tourists, but were seen by the Catalan people as a desperate cry, named ‘Tsunami Democràtic’ (democratic tsunami) to gain their self-determination and rights back.

Spain’s response was to send the national police to deal with the protests. In events mirroring those that occurred during the referendum in 2017, a 22-year-old man lost an eye in a protest, after being fired a rubber bullet by a policeman. At least 96 people have been hurt during the protests. Videos showing policemen blocking peaceful marches and brutally attacking protesters have sparked outrage, with many Catalan people claiming they have a right to demonstrate and take to the streets.

In fact, Article 21 of the Spanish Constitution does explicitly state that citizens hold a right to peacefully protest in public spaces, armless, and that this right shall not be stripped unless it poses a severe threat to people or goods.  The Spanish government has denied the claims that there are national policemen infiltrating the crowds, burning containers and creating violent unrest to stain the image of Catalonia in the eyes of the media.

On what grounds were the politicians imprisoned?

In spite of many UN organisms recognising the right to self-determination of territories – organisms repeatedly quoted by many Catalan politicians (taking into account these refer to territories under colonial domination or oppressed minorities) – the Spanish Constitution of 1978 does not allow for any referendums that could lead to separatism, let alone self-determination itself (it generally doesn’t allow for amendments either).

Undoubtedly illegal, yet necessary in the eyes of the Catalan people, to what extent is it fair for elected politicians to go to prison for wanting to hear their people’s opinion on a pressing issue? Furthermore, the politicians were accused of misuse of public funds, with previous accusations of violent revolution getting dropped.

16% of Spain’s population lives in the region, 25.6% of Spanish exports, as well as 19% of Spain’s GDP and 20.7% of foreign investment come from Catalonia (according to the BBC), yet in 2010 the region was stripped off most of the autonomy it had been granted after the fall of Franco’s dictatorship (and that had been expanded in 2006).

Following the illegal 2017 referendum, Spain invoked for the first time in its history Article 155 of the constitution, which essentially states that any Autonomous Community that fails to abide by the constitution can be forcibly made to do so, even if that involves the national government taking back control of all its powers. The Spanish government also sparked outrage following the imprisonment of 7 members of the CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Republic), a more radical Catalan separatist group, under the charges of ‘terrorism’.

What’s next?

Now we can only hope for peaceful political dialogue with Spanish President Pedro Sánchez, though this seems unlikely given that he ignored the Catalan President during his last visit to Barcelona. The second hope is for tourism and interest in Barcelona not to decline following the protests; hopefully the city will go back to its peaceful self. As per the topic of independence, this article covers but a fraction of the issue; it must be explored in a lot more depth (history, economy, culture etc.) to gain a substantial understanding.

Catalonia, a region with a distinct history tracing back more than 1000 years, has been shaken by political and civil unrest, yet it is hard to see independence happening in the near future. The current Catalan President, though, has already expressed his desire, following the fourth day of protests, to put forward a second referendum. The illegality of a movement doesn’t necessarily speak for its democratic nature, or does it?

Image by Xavier Vásquez via Wikimedia Commons

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